De Havilland, 101, sued FX in June, objecting to her portrayal in the Ryan Murphy series “Feud.” De Havilland’s attorneys argued that the series portrayed her as a “petty gossip” and took strong exception to a scene in which De Havilland calls her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine, a “bitch.”
FX countered that its depiction is protected under the First Amendment and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Judge Holly Kendig denied that motion, prompting FX to take its case to the state Court of Appeals.
The MPAA on Thursday joined with Netflix in urging the appellate court to overturn Kendig’s decision and throw out the suit. In the brief, the MPAA’s lawyers argued that they “cannot overstate the serious implications of the trial court’s ruling” for filmmakers who draw on real events for fictionalized works.
“Authors, writers, and directors cannot tell these types of stories if they are required to present every moment with 100 percent literal accuracy, without having any character utter a word that was not actually said, and without every event in the story taking as much time on screen as it did in real life,” they argue. “It would mark a radical departure from decades of case law if the mere use of standard storytelling techniques — indeed the basic tools of the creators’ artistry — were sufficient to support viable false light claims.”
In her suit, De Havilland notes that the “Feud” creators did not seek her out or obtain her consent. But the MPAA argues that requiring the consent of subjects of docudramas would give every public figure absolute veto power over how they were portrayed on screen.
“Motion pictures that criticize, analyze, or reimagine our heroes and leaders will be off limits, and both artistic freedom and public discourse will suffer accordingly,” they contend.
The brief includes a list of this year’s top awards contenders that are based on real events and that, the MPAA argues, would be threatened if De Havilland’s suit is allowed to proceed, including “The Post,” “I, Tonya,” “Dunkirk,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Darkest Hour,” “All the Money in the World,” and “Molly’s Game.”
“Screenwriters need the freedom to create fictional dialogue, imagined scenes, composite characters, and other dramatic elements without fear of unfounded liability,” the MPAA argues.